There's a lot of love out there in Apple land for Palm's WebOS¹. Admittedly, WebOS is a pretty cool and sweet looking operating system and it's much more Apple-like than Google's Android.
With new hardware on the way, hype is building, or perhaps re-building. DaringFireball's John Gruber is testing a new HP Veer and said today (link not up yet) that despite some flaws he'd take it over an Android phone in a heart beat.
But WebOS has been a near total dud since the first Palm Pre phone went on sale in June 2009. A quick review of exactly why the operating system has failed also reveals something about the blinders that many Apple fans wear.
Good design, even great design, isn't enough to win over lots of consumers. It's just one part of what makes a phone useful and desirable -- and not the most important part. Hardware quality and performance, both at the device level and the network level, matter as much or more. And marketing decisions make a difference, too. And that means flashy can lose out to functional.
So what went wrong with WebOS?
-The hardware line-up was odd and limited. The original Palm Pre had a vertical slide down keyboard. The most popular smart phones of the time had touch screens without physical keyboards, like the iPhone 3G, or always-in-view physical keyboards, like the Blackberry Curve series. And the Pre's screen was only 3.1 inches at time when bigger and bigger screens were gaining popularity.
-The hardware was widely described as slow and laggy in early reviews. The build quality was also lacking and the undersized keyboard had few fans. Gizmodo had a typical review, describing the Pre hardware as "Cheap. Flimsy. Dangerous even." Even David Pogue, amidst an overly-positive review predicting a big hit, noted that the battery life was horrid and there was an 8 to 10 second delay when starting up apps.
-Palm focused initially on Sprint, not one of the two major US carriers, AT&T and Verizon. Sprint has a smaller footprint of stores, a smaller marketing budget and a smaller customer customer base. The smaller customer base was particularly important because of the limited and slightly weird WebOS hardware line up. If you're going to offer hardware that's not in the market's sweet spot, you need to maximize the number of potential buyers. By the time the Pre reached Verizon and AT&T many months later, it already had the stink of failure and didn't get much promotional attention.
-The first WebOS phone was unveiled in January, 2009, but didn't actually go on sale until June 6, 2009, exactly two days before Apple unveiled the iPhone 3GS to widespread acclaim. And unlike Palm's deadly six month delay between announcement and sales, Apple started selling the 3GS two weeks later.
In the world of smart phones, it's not just the form, it's also the function.
Said another way, if WebOS could succeed, it would validate Apple fans' view of why the iPhone succeeded and why Android is really just a temporary blip that no one really likes. But the continued failure shows the blinders are still on about not just Web OS but Android, too.